Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Midweek Rumble: The Ricky Martin Ho-Hum Thing

I am glad to see that I am not the only person on the planet who just assumed Ricky Martin was gay and stopped thinking about it. When someone used "Ricky Martin" and "gay" in the same sentence the other day, I missed it that this was a Historic Moment For We Homosexuals.

It was only when two or three other people said something like: "Ricky Martin word, word, word, word GAY!" that I came to understand that this was a news item. And it's not as if I am so jaded that I simply don't pay attention anymore. If anyone had said that Vladimir Putin or Colin Powell was gay, I would have snapped to.

Although Ricky himself feels "fortunate" and "blessed," and testifies that his "years in silence and reflection made me stronger" (and richer!) "and reminded me that acceptance has to come from within," not everyone is happy about this. New Media America reports: "Karen Rodriguez, a reporter and producer of 22 years, said, 'We will continue going to his concerts and playing his discs, but it hurts to have lost such a beautiful man.'" He's still a man last time I looked. Or maybe what you meant is that he is "lost" to women? To heterosexuality? Or socially dead to Latino music?

Karen's response seems to be the exception, although not so many celebrities have commented, perhaps for fear of being thought gay if they are supportive and homophobic if they are not. Oh what a tangled web we weave. But the fans are fine with it. Skimming blogs and the comments sections of the various media who reported this non-story, I am happy to say that for once I am in the mainstream by responding with a big "So What?" As "Energon" at the Guardian grumps, "Flamboyant singer of one of the most irritating songs of the last 20 years publicly announces he likes men's bottoms. Quite frankly, who gives a monkeys [arse]? I'm an unfortunate heterosexual man who had to listen to that dreadful song played repeatedly throughout the late 90s. What has Ricky Martin got to say about that?"

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Death, Taxes and Homocons

The Only One Missing Is The Mad Hatter: Today's front page story in the New York Times on Tea Party activists reveals what we already suspected: that many of its leading activists are comfortably unemployed. Many key players at the local level are older people of retirement age who are supporting themselves on Social Security and Medicare: one actually retired so that she could pursue her activism full-time. This is why they are able to dedicate themselves to running off at the drop of a hat to make signs or protest the extension of health care to younger people who have failed to exercise the responsibility to stay, or be, employed at the jobs that would give them access to affordable insurance. Because they have already paid into these big government entitlement programs, senior activists explain, "they are getting what they deserve." Hoo-hah!

But it's still big government, right? So some people deserve services from big government and others don't? How about the people who have paid into Medicare who are undocumented immigrants? Or the 11.5 million people who have paid into unemployment for their whole lives whose benefits and COBRA will run out on April 5 because Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla) are blocking an emergency spending bill (as the US spends $720 million per day on the war.)

Well yes, it's all big government. The maintenance of rest stops on the highway is also a function of big government, one that probably costs less than about a half day of war. In a bell weather move, the Arizona Department of Transportation -- starved of money by the good people of that state -- has had to close thirteen rest stops. This means that you can drive the width of the state on Highway 40 and have absolutely nowhere to go to the bathroom that is safe, private and clean. Arizonans, at last report, are incensed. So are people in the states where they are raising taxes on everything from haircuts to funerals because elected officials are too chicken to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

My advice to academics is that whatever you are teaching next year, find some way to talk about how and why governments raise revenues; and the misinformation that "small government," low income, corporate and property taxes, and de-regulation hold the promise of utopia for the little guy because it is just not true and never has been true. By trying to kill taxes, so-called populists and their spokespeople in both parties have produced a regressive system that actually is hardest on the little guy who needs to take a whizz or bury grandma. Poor people are actually paying taxes on behalf of the rich when state revenues are collected primarily at the cash register. Curricula should also include discussions of the infrastructure maintained by government that allows us all to actually go to work; the reasons why education should be a loss-leader, not a break-even endeavor; why feeding people and keeping them healthy is good for the economy; and other material connections between the health of large institutions like banks, hospitals, universities and public transportation systems and the well-being of the littlest hard-working guy or gal. Don't want the government to bail out the banks, but you do want to prevent your overpriced house from going into foreclosure? It's two sides of the same problem: you can't help the people without helping the banks, and vice versa.

Finally, United States history demonstrates quite graphically an unregulated economy is not a better economy: look at the nineteenth century, why don't you, which was just one big boom-and-bust cycle. In fact, while you are at it, volunteer to teach a history class at a senior center, since that is where it seems you could do a lot of good.

Speaking of Taxes, There Is Also Death: The book of the week, hands down, is Final Acts: Death, Dying and the Choices We Make, edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Donna Perry (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010). While I must add the disclaimer that I know one of the authors Very Well, it is a beautiful collection of reflections on death and dying, with a high emphasis on the choices that one's own death potentially entails. How to plan for death, how to receive death, how to struggle with the choices loved ones have made -- or not made -- about their own final decline, and how chronic illness and/or aging creates the possibility for thinking about one's time on earth are all reflected upon in this collection. The scholars and writers represented in the collection represent the social sciences, medicine, philosophy, psychology, literature and women's studies. Anthropologist Nancy Barnes writes about her strong-willed mother who had intended to end her life in the event of a long, fatal illness -- and then was unable to do so as her dementia eroded the rational mind that had made those plans. Historians may wish to take a special look at a personal essay by Sara Evans on the decline of her parents, Claude and Mackie. You can buy Final Acts by going to the above link, or you can click here.

Then There Is Social Death: One of the best pieces I have ever read, ever, about conservatives in the closet is Joanne Wypijewski's "Hey, Sailor" (The Nation, April 5 2010). In "Carnal Knowledge," a column that does not appear frequently enough, Wypijewski puts the Eric Massa Ticklegate scandal in a broader cultural perspective. Here's the thing: you might not be able to get it unless you subscribe, but so what? For only $18.00 you can get the online edition for a year, and you can actually get a free, four week trial subscription if spending $18.00 for a left wing pig in a polk is not your kind of thing. But actually? To get Katha Pollitt, Eric Alterman, Patricia Williams, Eric Foner, Richard Kim, Greg Grandin, Calvin Trillin's political satire in verse, and all the news you need to read mainstream sources critically? It's a bargain.

And you get access to fabulous cover art like the one featured at the top of this post.

Friday, March 26, 2010

On Political Violence: Vandalism And Mortal Threats In The Wake Of The Wake Of The Health Care Vote

If you actually go to Sarah Palin's Facebook page, rather than simply believe what you have heard in the media, you can evaluate for yourself whether the twenty Democratic congressional seats she is urging the Republicans to take back in November are, or are not, marked with rifle cross hairs. I'm voting for not, although I haven't looked through a rifle sight in decades, so I am no authority.

I think the notion that Palin is inviting political assassins to, as we now say in the political arena, "bring it on" (I guess if you are a Republican you say "let's roll") takes an act of imagination. In order to imagine that one was being summoned by Palin to harm a sitting Congressman as part of a rebellion against tyranny, one would have to disregard what the former Governor of Alaska (or the person who maintains the site for her) actually says in the note attached to the map. "We’re going to fire them and send them back to the private sector," she says; "which has been shrinking thanks to their destructive government-growing policies. Maybe when they join the millions of unemployed, they’ll understand why Americans wanted them to focus on job creation and an invigorated private sector." Appealing to millions of voters who are unemployed or underemployed, and asking them to blame Democratic rather than Republican policies for their immiseration, Palin is suggesting that Democratic politicians be fired -- not fired upon.

Hell, yeah. Why would you need health insurance if you are unemployed? I ask you. Fire the ignorant bastards!

And yet. And yet.

Let us consider acts of imagination that might turn those crosses into cross hairs. After all, history demonstrates that political violence becomes conceivable through acts of imagination. In the United States, those acts of imagination have often been given tacit (or not so tacit) approval by politicians themselves who imagine themselves leading "the people" in a rebellion against tyranny.

Palin's recent Twitter message to her followers -- "Don't Retreat, Instead -- RELOAD!" is an unambiguous use of a war metaphor in the political arena. This causes me to wonder why, if Palin truly wishes to distance herself from political violence, she hasn't retracted that Twitter or redrawn that map with little stars instead. That she should allow the misunderstanding that she is inciting her followers to dangerous attacks to stand strikes me as odd, particularly given the threats to and acts of violence against Democrats that followed the health care vote last week. In the most potentially lethal incident, Virginia Democratic Congressman Tom Periello's home address was listed on a Lynchburg VA Tea Party blog (except it was actually Periello's brother's address.) Subsequently, the gas line to that home was cut, which might have resulted in a lethal explosion and fire.

Although the Lynchburg Tea Party has said it does not condone the violence (while we're at it, we could change the name of that town), it hasn't taken down the address or sanctioned the blogger either. Bricks through windows, some with threatening notes attached, have been more the norm; as have threats delivered by mail. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner received an envelope containing "white powder," intended to mimic an anthrax attack, and pictures of nooses were sent to other Congresspeople who voted yes on the national health bill. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party leaders have "distanced themselves" from these acts, saying that they result from "frustration" but are "not acceptable."

Well, if violence is not acceptable, remove this garbage from your websites, public statements and protest posters. Any responsible political organization would do this if they were concerned about the possibility of violence.

Goading crowds of the disaffected to violent emotions while insisting that actual criminal acts are only perpetrated by fringe elements has a long history in this country: ask Pitchfork Ben Tillman ("It was the riots before the elections precipitated by [Negro voters'] own hot-headedness in attempting to hold the government, that brought on conflicts between the races and caused the shotgun to be used. That is what I meant by saying we used the shotgun.") Ask George Wallace ("Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done.... I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.")

Ask Strom Thurmond ("I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.") Or ask Jesse Helms: "You needed that job. You were the best qualified for this job. But they had to give it to a minority."

Better yet, ask any civil rights worker from the 1950s or 1960s about the ration of threats received to bricks or bombs through the window. As a former candidate for president, Sarah Palin knows exactly what her foolish fear mongering accomplishes among her followers, something that other Republican lawmakers also ought to be held accountable for as they pursue a rhetorical scorched earth policy that summons the Lost Cause, the Alamo, and every other intolerant moment in this country's history (the American Revolution had plenty of them too, as so-called patriots sacked Tories and Native Americans for fun and profit.) As The Telegraph in the UK reported in November 2008, the McCain-Palin campaign's pursuit of rhetoric that linked an Obama presidency to US vulnerability to terrorism not only provoked cries of "Terrorist!" and "K___ him!" against candidate Obama, but a dramatic uptick in threats made against the life of the candidate and his family.* That none of these threats have, to date, resulted in an assault on the President does not make them meaningless, and Palin must actively refrain from provoking them.

Huffington Post reports that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have "condemned" the threats against Democrats, but they haven't, not really. As one quote on HuffPo reads,"'I do not condone violence,' Cantor said on Capitol Hill on Thursday. 'There are no leaders in the building, no rank and file members that condone violence, period.'But Cantor admonished Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for 'dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon.'" The condemnation of Democratic fundraisers citing these incidents in fundraising requests (because why would Democrats be afraid of a Republican Party that harbors vandals and assassins?) begs the question of who lit the fire in the first place.

For a good example of who that might be, go to John Boehner's web page, where an article without authorship (it is posted by the "Press Office") trumpets a "states rebellion... in Ohio" in response to a "Washington Democrats’ massive job-killing government takeover of health care." Promising that "the fight is far from over," Boehner announces that "Across the country, nothing short of a rebellion is underway." Embedded in this sentence is a link that takes you to another announcement of politicians in three states -- Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina -- who are moving to oppose the plan.

Anyone recall how peaceful the last rebellion or three that started in those states was? My point exactly.

*My use of blanks for this word is in deference to the fact that it is a federal felony to imply a threat to the the President's life.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Impending Socialism And Other Edgy Stuff

We Haz National Health Cayuh? As I write, Bart Stupak (pictured at right with a Finnish comedy troupe from Michigan's Upper Peninsula) and his merry band of anti-choice Democrats have been reassured that the Hyde Amendment will be defended by an executive order. It looks like the Health Care legislation will pass now that these gentlemen are all aboard. Of course, in order to get national health care for everyone, we threw women overboard. Again, Barack. So almost everyone will almost get almost all the care they need. Ho-kay.

I have actually listened to the debate off and on, being as I am a political historian. We in the Radical household are amusing ourselves by quoting arcane points of parliamentary procedure and asking each other to yield time in increments of less than a minute. John L. Lewis was a stunner, as usual, and I felt lucky to have tuned in at the moment he spoke. Charles Rangel made it up to the podium for a hot minute to explain that the only reason he had stepped down as chair of Ways and Means was to not distract from this very important piece of legislation (what rent controlled apartments?); and numerous Republicans stumbled through 15 to 60 seconds of outrage and horror about our country's slide towards socialism. I don't mind the occasional reference to Marx, but a few of these folks were genuinely delusional. One Distinguished Member predicted the return of totalitarian dictatorships all over the globe as a result of this bill, another that socialized medicine would be personally enforced by IRS thugs kicking down our doors. The idea that thousands of American citizens voted for people who would say such things is positively mind-numbing. And then there was the constant repetition of the notion that the bill was being "rammed down our throats," which for those of us in queer studies -- well, all I can say is, don't ask, don't tell, Rep. Boehner.

In Case You Think You Are Done With The Memoir Genre: Even if you have sworn off overpriced hardbacks about alcoholic mothers, crazy mothers, people who have battled back from depression, anorexia, poverty, a bad immigration status, homelessness or schizophrenia to get an agent and write their story of triumph and heartbreak, there is one more memoir you have to read: Patti Smith's Just Kids. As much about her lover and friend photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as it is about Smith, it's a terrific portrait of the evolution of two artists, and of downtown life in the 1970s. Warhol was fading, punk was arriving, and New York was still cheap enough that all kinds of kids flocked there to do theater, music, visual art and whatever struck them as important. Sometimes, Village Voice reviewer Roy Edroso writes, "Just Kids is just arch, with the usual defects of long prose written by poets. But Smith pulls you in—like with her clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played, but by the force of its devotional fervor." There are certain memories that you wish Smith had kept to herself, like her suggestion that she nicknamed Janis Joplin "Pearl" (even if it's true it is one of the few uncool moments in the book.) But as a story about ambition, love and what it means to devote yourself to art it is a winner. For an excerpt, click here.

And Last But Not Least:

Department of Lessons On Discretion and Civilized Disputation: No comment.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Gendering War In The Hurt Locker

It may turn out that I am one of the few people in the United States who didn't like The Hurt Locker, a movie about a bomb disposal team in Iraq which is all the rage. Yes, I know it won six Academy Awards, including the first Oscar ever awarded to a woman director, Katherine Bigelow. I realize that I am always supposed to cheer for the woman, but as a feminist historian and cultural critic I found this film terribly disturbing.

(Speaking of history: Bigelow's Wikipedia entry lists her as married to James Cameron; go to his, and you will discover that they divorced in 1991, and Cameron has added one ex and a current wife since.)

There were the good disturbing parts, of course. Bigelow, a director of several action and horror films, was exactly the candidate for the scenes where Staff Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner) has to figure out, not where the bomb is, but how many bombs there are. These moments are positively chilling. Bigelow plays with the scene by trigering the emotions -- suspense, relief, dread and "gotcha" surprise -- that are a staple of the horror film, twisting them to suit and transform another genre. In one early scene James, having defused one IED, begins to pull on a wire only to discover that the bomb he disabled is attached to six others live devices, and he is standing right in the middle of all of them. (Imagine a similar scene where a young woman sticks her hand in a cereal box, looking for a snack, and comes out with a handful of spiders.) The horror if war in Iraq, Bigelow tells us by switching up her genres, makes it historically unique among wars. Similarly, there is a grisly scene where the squad discovers a bomb factory: in an inner room, there is a child's corpse with a bomb sewn inside; James must defuse the bomb by plunging his hands into the freshly butchered body. These scenes are outlandish, but their deftness makes them read true.

That said, one problem with The Hurt Locker is that, for a war movie, it is also strangely dull, despite Bigelow's perfect skills as a director and several lively combat scenes. It relies for its narrative on a series of tense scenes: in each, the bomb disposal team deals with excruciating danger as the devious bombers challenge James' skills as a defuser. Each episode is beautifully crafted, but quite similar; they are interspersed with far too sketchy glimpses into the inner lives of the men who do such work (they drink, they fight, they smoke, they play video games.) Recreation for the squad consists of getting nasty drunk and belting each other in the stomach until one guy collapses (because you have to feel the pain somehow, right? Duh.)

Lesson? The inner lives of these men have been completely evacuated by the work they do; they are dead men walking. As I recall, one soldier actually describes himself as "already dead" early in the film. James, in one of the few scenes where the men speak about something other than their work, cannot seem to remember whether he is actually married or not. He knows he has a son, and that his son has a mother, but the woman's precise social relationship to him is foggy, in contrast to the acute sense of space and time he can access when defusing an IED.

Since I tend to not be interested in men or women who have lost empathy for other living things, it may be my limitation that I had trouble connecting to the characters. However, I also didn't love the lack of plot in The Hurt Locker, even though this is probably a skillful political device if you want to win an Oscar about a charged subject. The movie is neither pro-war or anti-war; it just is. Furthermore, I occasionally found the action outside of the bomb disposal and combat scenes confusing -- like why, for example, does James hunt down the family of the murdered child only to terrorize them and then run away? What does he think they did to deserve him storming their house? Is the point that he doesn't know what he wants from them? Is it supposed to be a metaphor for the whole rotten enterprise? None of this is clear. Or why, at the end of film, does he ends up back in Iraq? I thought he had re-hitched because he was no longer suited for civilian life (a common trope for twentieth century wartime masculinity dating back to Erich Maria Remarque's 1928 World War I novel All Quiet On The Western Front.) My friend, on the other hand, thought he had actually been killed, and was doomed for all eternity to dress in the fat suit and wander the dusty streets of (name your favorite city in Iraq here.)

Like Kimberley Pierce, who directed the haunting and lightly released Stop-Loss (2008), I suspect that Bigelow is trying to break out into the big time (and succeeding, as Pierce did not) by marketing herself as a woman director who "knows men." This may be one explanation for the most more serious historical problem with The Hurt Locker in my view: there are no women in it, minus a brief glimpse of the mother of James' son and shots of Iraqi women who literally scuttle around the streets during the various crises. In these scenes even male Iraqi bystanders have agency: they study American soldiers with empty, unreadable expressions (we are expected to experience the soldiers' constant watchfulness that any one of these men might trigger the bomb; the racist effect is that they all become terrorists.) Given the fact that collectively women have served over 150,000 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and 2,000 of them have won the Bronze Star for valor in combat, I find it inexplicable that there are no uniformed women in this movie. None, not even in crowd scenes where men get to be the stars. In other words, part of what has been erased in The Hurt Locker is what makes this war historically distinctive -- so that Bigelow can hook us with portraits of wounded masculinity from past wars with which we are already (un)comfortable.

Therefore, it mattered that a woman directed this movie because....?

One explanation, and what ought to be of greater concern about The Hurt Locker, is that it skates over much of what is distinctive about this war to beat us over the head with an old story about war: irreparably wounded masculinity. Will James is Natty Bumpo, the man who knows Indians who, as Richard Slotkin taught us, will be central to American regeneration through violence but will forever remain outside civilization as a consequence. Furthermore, the cultural work of The Hurt Locker is similar to that of the Viet Nam movies that Jerry Lembke discusses so intelligently in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (1998): to persuade us that returning veterans are likely to be crazed, lost misfits who will never fit into society again. Following on a grisly discovery in London that one trendy chain store is selling a Travis Bickle fashion line (here's another link to a US store that will help you dress like the homicidal Viet Nam vet from Martin Scorcese's 1976 hit, Taxi Driver), I think this cultural trend should be of greater concern. Granted, many soldiers returned from Viet Nam terribly damaged, and some remain traumatized by their experiences to this day (although they weren't helped by the fact that shell-shock had been removed from the DSM-III, so they were given diagnoses that articulated their condition as unrelated to their war experiences.) Many men and women have, and will, return from Iraq requiring far more care than I suspect they will get.

But the legacy of Viet Nam movies, as Lembke argues, is the cultural expectation that once a man has gone to war he never really returns to a normal social world. Bigelow underlines this promise by turning James into a one-trick pony, who lectures his baby son about how he has come to only love bombs. There is also an idiotic psychotherapist who appears periodically in the film to remind us that no one --particularly those whose job it is to do so -- cares about what soldiers are going through. The pompous shrink delivers endless platitudes in the face of his client's growing despair and fear, and he refuses to actually engage the world that the bomb disposal unit inhabits. When challenged to do so by his angry client, for unexplained reasons the shrink finally agrees to go out on patrol with the squad. He does a variety of stupid things, utterly unsupervised by anyone, and gets blown up. Predictably, this adds to his client's burden of guilt and shame.

So yes, The Hurt Locker won six Academy Awards -- but in my view it doesn't hold a candle to the Iraq movies that have been overlooked, most prominently In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007). But the verdict from this historian? Thumbs down.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

College Teaching 101: Managing The Lecture Class

In February 2010, I participated in a Roundtable discussion about teaching lecture classes at Zenith. The following essay about teaching is developed from the notes I prepared for that occasion.

Why is it important to learn how to teach lecture classes well?

First of all, for many of us, lecturing will make up the lion’s share of our course load – whether you measure that in students taught (a SLAC) or courses taught (a research or state university.) Novice teachers live with the terror of a little-acknowledged fact: the lecture room is where your weaknesses, or your inexperience, are most easily revealed; it is where your expertise will be challenged most publicly, often by questions that come out of left field, questions that may be designed to undermine you -- or not. Disturbing things happen in the lecture room because students (having not yet gone to graduate school to be schooled in academic etiquette) are cheerfully unselfconscious about interrupting your meticulous outline with a question, a bag of chips or a bathroom break; challenging your authority to demonstrate their own mastery of your field; or jiggling into the room in a tube top that is barely holding in an impressive upper shelf. You could easily be lecturing on the migration of black workers to industrial centers during World War II, and a student – who took the modern United States history survey because of a passion for HBO’s endless Band of Brothers series, will raise a hand to ask acerbically: “Was this strike before or after the Battle of the Bulge?"

Novice teachers will reckon with other issues they never dealt with as a teaching assistant, or when running an advanced seminar carefully culled from a dissertation specialty. Most of these problems aren't intellectual, they are social. In fact, the lecture room can sometimes begin to seem like a sixteenth century theater, where sex workers recruited clients in the Grand Circle and urchins flung oranges to purchasers who dropped a shilling from the balcony. Until you get a grip on how to manage your classroom, students will be furtively – or not so furtively – checking their email and Facebooks, texting, chatting with their neighbors, writing funny things on their notebooks and sliding it to a neighbor, dozing, sucking down gallons of water or (inevitably) bumping across a row of people to get to the exit because “I have to go to the bathroom, Professor.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But think of it this way: the lecture class is not just worth learning to teach well because you will be judged on it when you come up for tenure, or because succumbing to perpetual humiliation and stress is not an option. The lecture class is worth learning to teach well because this is where you will build your reputation as a teacher. It is where you will recruit students into your upper level seminars, into your major and perhaps even into honors work a few years hence. It is subsequent to being exposed to your intellect and charm as one of 50 to 100 people that students will muse, during pre-registration, “Maybe I’ll take Radical’s seminar on the Cold War. I took the survey and it was pretty good.” As your students fan out onto the campus, they will tell their peers, the frosh who they guide as a Resident Advisor, and their teammates that you are worth learning from. In other words, if you have a reputation as a good teacher, you will get good students.

The corollary to this is: if you have a reputation as an indifferent teacher, you will get indifferent students. Unfairly, colleagues who are working desperately hard to teach well sometimes end up as the professor of last resort for students who, for whatever reason, were disengaged and uninvested before they met you. They are the ones who are fulfilling requirements; the ones who registered too late to get into anything else; the ones who majored in X because it has a reputation as a gut major. They are the ones who come in late, doze in the back row, and don’t even try to hide it that they are playing with their smart phones. Such people not only impede your chances of being successful, they are much harder to teach, because their indifference to learning has evolved into a more general commitment to indifference.

So what do you do, dear? It's easy, really. You need to persuade students to cooperate with you in the business of learning. This is something that is often neglected in discussions about teaching: what practical steps can you take to work with your students to create a classroom atmosphere that is conducive to learning?

There are three basic principles: establish the rules; know your audience; and make personal contact.

Establish the Rules. Every social space has its own etiquette, and similar social spaces do not always have the same etiquette. While there are some things that students know they shouldn’t be doing in class (surfing the web, indulging in side conversations, passing notes) there are other things that vary from classroom to classroom (eating and drinking, leaving the room for reasons of hygiene, coming late or leaving early, cutting class entirely.) Instead of establishing a set of rules and becoming an enforcer (something that is easier to get away with when you are older and your reputation as a cantankerous old fart is well established), consider setting aside a portion of the first class to consult your students about what they think is appropriate classroom behavior.

Questions you might ask them are: How many classes should a student be allowed to cut before the final grade is affected? What is our policy on late papers? Do we allow re-writes – and if so, how much can the grade be raised? What is our policy on coming late to class? Rescheduling exams? Is it OK to leave the room in the middle of class? Do we need a reminder to turn off cell phones? You would be surprised how thoughtful students can be about what kind of classroom they would like to learn in. Often the rules they suggest are far more rigorous than yours might be, and need to be moderated. Once the room has agreed on some basic principles, emphasize that the rules are theirs and that they need to be responsible for them. If and when a student’s participation becomes a problem, it is easier, and more effective, to point out that the rules are not arbitrary: they were established and agreed to by the group.

Know Your Audience. Ask students to evaluate the class informally at several points in the semester. While the end of term evaluation that the university asks for can be helpful to some extent, its one-size-fits all quality is usually better suited to comparing faculty with each other than it is to learning detailed information about the class you actually taught. Ask students to fill out an end of semester evaluation devised by you, in which you ask them specific questions. Devise a midterm evaluation so that you can correct for things that aren’t working well before it is too late. All evaluations should be anonymous to encourage frankness, but should also ask students to comment on their own efforts to date, and how you can better support them. This encourages students to think about their responsibilities as well as yours -- something a university form, which students know will be used for a tenure evaluation, does not emphasize. Hence, students will often use that form to "grade" you in retaliation for the grade they expect to receive, rather than to reflect honestly on what they committed to the course.

I would also advocate setting aside a portion of the first or second class to pass around a short questionnaire in which you ask students a few things about themselves and what they want from the class. Ask them about their major, where they are from, and what their other interests are. Ask them what interested them in the class in the first place. Ask them how many hours a week they work, and at what.

Knowing the intellectual profile of the class can give you a good sense of where you need to pitch the work. It also allows you to do something that for many students is utterly novel: call on them as if they were knowledgeable people who had significant lives outside your class. For example,

“Stacy, you are a physics major. Can you explain to the class why Einstein’s theorem might have been so influential outside of science?”

“JJ, you are in ROTC – what ideas about leadership might have characterized the veterans of World War II as they went into the civilian workforce?”

For those of you who think this is just sucking up to students to get good teaching evaluations, think again: students who feel invested in will invest in you; students who are treated with respect are more likely to respond respectfully; students who are permitted to speak as experts will gain confidence in themselves and learn better; and students who feel like you notice them may make a special effort to get you to notice them again by being their best selves.

And this leads me to my final point:

Make Personal Contact. The hardest part of this is probably the most important: learning their names. While students will understand why this is difficult for you, it hurts their feelings when you don’t, because of course they remember your name. A particularly unpleasant version of name amnesia is when – and it happens all the time – there are, say, two black men in the class, or two Asian-American women, and the white teacher repeatedly switches up their names. (If you do this, you need to apologize privately: I can't tell you how much students are hurt by it.)

Before calling the roll, ask students to correct you if you mispronounce their names, or to say if they wish to be called by another name. Note that all students may wish to tell you, publicly or privately, what pronoun they wish to have used to describe their lived, as opposed to their apparent, gender.

Create teaching situations that help you attach bodies to identities more or less invisibly. Schedule small group work where you float around the room and ask members of each group to introduce themselves. Call the roll frequently in the first few weeks. Use a seating chart for the first two weeks, annotate it as a cheat sheet and call on people. Print out the version of the class list with pictures and keep it on your podium. Insist on meeting each student personally in the first two weeks, even if this means scheduling extra office hours. Give each student hir own appointment: this is not only courteous, so that no student is kept waiting for 45 minutes for a 5 minute session with you (their time actually is as valuable as yours), but it is sneaky. As a student walks in the room you chirp, “Hi Terry!” Actually using Terry's name is the first step to remembering it, in my experience.

Another way of making personal contact is to walk your classroom and make eye contact. Zenith’s (Not Really) New President actually does this in faculty meetings, and I have no idea whether it is deliberate or not, but it was interesting to experience the effect of something I have done for years: when students have to follow you with their eyes, they are more likely to listen actively. More important, your physical proximity to students – say, in the back row – makes it more likely that they will have to connect to your voice (and your mind) in a more intimate way even though they have chosen distance.

Be aware that students are in the back row for all kinds of reasons, one of which can be shyness. If your lecture class includes time for class discussion, you will notice that perhaps a third (or fewer) of your students actually have the confidence to speak in front of a large group. Remember that feeling of your throat closing involuntarily during your first lecture, or the first time you said something in a department meeting? Well most of the students in your class feel exactly like that: that they will open their mouths and nothing but choking sounds will come out. Announce in the first couple classes that you would like to help students speak in class, and meet them in office hours to devise strategies for them (my favorite is the canned question: write it down in your notebook, read it out, I will praise you lavishly and you are done.) Create a class blog that counts as participation if they post entries. In small group work, appoint the non-talkers as group reporters, who will present the group findings at the end of class. Ask non-talkers to read aloud an important passage of an assigned text so they can hear their own voice in the room.

Finally, do you have a troublemaker? The one who is always questioning your intellectual authority? The one who believes ze could probably teach the course hirself? The one who marches in ten minutes late, and takes another five minutes to get settled? The one who is always asking some attention-getting question that has nothing to do with what you are talking about, and is totally breaking your rhythm? The one, who you think, on bad days, is a plant from Campus Watch? Surprise hir. (Metaphorically) embrace hir. Ask hir to lunch. Find out what is going on in as subtle a way as possible, and then find some opportunity to give a compliment (even if you have to work really hard to think of one) and be explicit about what has to happen next. For example: “You are obviously very engaged with the material, and I appreciate that. But you could choose to derail this class with [named behavior], or you could make a huge contribution to its success. Which are you going to choose?”

In other words, invest in this student. Believe me, this is going to have a much better outcome than complaining to your friends about the kid over drinks, dreading it every time that hand goes up, or plotting your response to the horrible teaching evaluation you will get from hir. It’s an alternative to being defensive -- it's what we call teaching. Because the point is, even in a lecture class, each student is an individual, and wants to be treated like one. That’s when they learn best.

And when they learn, your class will be a success.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Inability To Type Coherently Edition, With An Addendum On A Missing Post

Due to jet lag and a persistent failure of my fingers to connect to my brain, today's roundup is confined to three items, two of which I did not have to think at all and one of which is a Serious Matter.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: At Legal History Blog Mary Dudziak offers a few tips on how to get an article done over the summer. This will, perhaps, be most useful to old fogies like me who don't have to publish anything if they don't want to, but are always open to suggestions for how to use their time well; those of you who just finished a book and can't imagine using the summer that way again right away; or those of you who have just finished your first year of teaching and are figuring out which dissertation chapter should be offered up to the rest of us. To give you a tasty preview (that exactly corresponds with my own writing experience this spring at Zenith's wonderful Center for the Humanities:

Pick a time of day that is your writing time. Spend that time in a space that is reserved for writing. You go to your space at the designated time, and then all you can do is write. No phone, no email, nothing else. If you're at your office, put a "do not disturb/available after __ p.m." sign on your door. You might feel that you should spend 8 hours a day doing nothing but writing, but that is unrealistic (unrealistic for every day, as compared w/ days when the momentum is going, and you can't seem to stop). To really protect that time, it might need to be 2-3 hours. If you need to make a lot of progress in a short time, perhaps schedule two writing blocks during a day. But I think you'll find that if you actually spend 2-3 solid hours writing every day, with no email and nothing but writing, you will have an article by the end of the summer.

For more hints, go to The Faculty Lounge.

Cool (Or Cold?) Conference Announcement of the Week: Well, I'm going with "Cold War Cultures," Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives Conference at the University of Texas at Austin September 30 - October 3, 2010. Perhaps an excuse to go to the Berkeley of the Southwest doesn't strike you as a reason to participate, but the CFP might:

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then Cold War politics can be seen as a continuation of war by other means. This interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore these means in the context of global encounters between states and "Blocs" as well as engagements with "East" and "West." Indeed, after the end of the Second World War, a new kind of "war" continued and expanded as governments and/or interest groups created and continually reshaped institutions, media, popular
culture, and various elements of social and political life. Globally, these broad-based transformations took place in the shadow of Cold War politics, especially as expressed through rhetoric of threat and mutual annihilation. In particular, cultural phenomena shaped by Cold War power conflicts take on myriad forms in a host of geographic contexts, both in and outside the Bloc, from iconic public representations to distinctive media advertising, memorable political speeches, world expositions, spy novels and films, and a plethora of official and popular modes of expression. In some places, of course, military or paramilitary conflagrations translated Cold War politics into "hot" wars, which further fueled the fire of Cold War imaginations.

Go here for details and the full call.

Department of Blog Revisions: Early in my blogging career, I took down several posts about my life at Zenith that, when I became more experienced in the genre, I came to believe might cause students and colleagues to worry that none of our interactions could be private. For a different reason, today I removed a post from late February, 2010: Annals of Contemporary History; or, Queering the Klan. The post was illustrated with a mock photo of "Klansmen" dressed in lavender robes, and -- in blogger tradition -- I linked to the sites I was drawing evidence from. It was a discussion of homophobia on the far right wing that relied for its evidence on a website and a discussion board maintained by US-based white supremacists. However, comments I have received in my Gmail account (and several that I removed from the comments section) caused me to retire the post.

The misunderstandings that prompted these negative responses were, in my view, a symptom of what everyone who writes on-line knows: people read blogs and other web texts hastily and are not always fully aware of the author's tone and intention in sensitive or controversial matters. Clearly this phenomenon was a particular liability in a post about right wing extremism that relied heavily on irony to make a point, delivered in the last line, about homophobia among mainstream conservative policy makers. People who do not read my blog regularly (and perhaps did not even make it past the first link), many of whom appear to have viewed the post through forwards from Facebook and Twitter followers of Tenured Radical, were offended and injured by what they saw as my obliviousness to the real harm white supremacist groups do and have done over the course of the last century. I got a few --er, lively -- emails from them upon returning from my research trip last night. Therefore, although I don't think the post supports the view that I take violence, racial discrimination or anti-semitism lightly, in the interests of not putting my scholarly or moral integrity needlessly at risk, I have removed Queering the Klan from public view. Tenured Radical is, and always has been, an anti-racist blog. While I believe in free speech, the principle at stake in the post -- that the absolute stigmatizing of queer people by the "respectable" Republican mainstream is far more extreme and less nuanced than it is among their counterparts on the openly racist and anti-semitic unrespectable right wing -- my experience in the blogosphere is that some posts are worth fighting for and others are not. And for the edification of other, less experienced bloggers: if a post has to be explained at length, it probably wasn't well-crafted in the first place.

Photo Credit.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

London Calling: A Few Thoughts On The Mother Country

What -- the Radical is tracing her heritage to England? Well yes, sort of. To make a long story short, the Paternal Unit's family came to the colonies, from England, in the seventeenth century. The Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) traces her line of descent from somewhere in the Germanic middle of Europe and from Selkirks, who were herded onto ships two loaves short of starvation and sent to make a living in Canada circa 1811. The latter group, although ruined by colonialism were then, in a twisted historical accident, saved by it. As a result, my family came to identify as English in Canada. True, until Canada began to recognize that there were not only white people in the world, one had limited choices: English or French, Protestant or Catholic. Nevertheless, I have met other Scots-descended Canadian folk who identify ethnically as Scottish and do a lot of Scots nationalist things like celebrate Bobby Burns day.

Not our bunch. And we have the complete recordings of Winston Churchill's WWII radio speeches to prove it.

That said, there's nothing that makes me feel more American than coming to Europe, and it doesn't change anything that this is an Anglophone country. Partly that's because, even though technically we all speak English, I often don't understand what people are saying, or I miss crucial words. "'Oo wah' sa' ri' wi'-'at?" a waiter said to me in a Chinese restaurant the other day. I had already replied "Huh?" in a stupid tone of voice when I realized, too late, that he was asking me if I wanted rice with my chicken with black bean sauce. (Note: no Asian or South Asian restaurant I have visited to date gives you rice for free, and restaurants try to sell you water unless you insist on drinking it out of the tap.)

Strangeness and ethnic identification I am not feeling aside, I love everything about it here, and cruise the estate agents windows in Bloomsbury near my hotel looking for the perfect flat to buy or rent. Following my life pattern, my guess is I would land in the East End, site of The Women's Library, where I was doing research on the UK's Campaign Against Pornography. It's an odd part of town, with warren-like streets lined in squat, brick dwellings that suddenly give way to huge, ugly concrete and steel office buildings, many belonging to London Metropolitan University; or to Council flats, some of which seem nice and others of which look like they are made of cardboard left out in the rain. I suspect this odd layout has something to do with World War II and the German Blitz, which targeted the neighborhoods of London's working poor and the factories they worked in. Some of the old city remains, including Toynbee Hall, and the rest counted for an early version of Urban Renewal.

People say London is expensive, and that is true about real estate: it's at least as expensive as New York, if not more so. But other things are cheaper. Fruit, for example ($1.50 for six apples; 2.50 for two pints of raspberries, on special); and theater tickets (less than $50 for a nearly front row ticket to see Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Covent Garden with James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad -- tonight!). But people also seem to have more fun here. For example, many of the station stops on the Underground (where trains come about every minute, Mr. Bloomberg) have funny names like Barking. "This train is for Bah-King" the lady intones every time the door closes. Today I was riding home from the LSE on the Piccadilly line, and a teenage boy with blown-forward teddy boy hair was amusing several girls around him by imitating the train lady's pronunciation of Cockfosters, "Cock! - fahsters," he would chirp, and they would all giggle wildly. Meanwhile, two girls also in this group (as I discovered when they all exited the train together) were at the other end of the car, lightly kissing and feeling each other up while everyone but me read the Guardian.

One of the teens caught me looking and said nicely, "Just a little lesbian fun."

"Indeed it is," I replied. Personally, I have rarely had more fun on a train.

But perhaps the nicest thing about England, given how routinely nasty the United States has become in the past decade, is that everyone is polite, and not just the many different people who are English: practically everyone who works here in a service position is Portuguese, Spanish or, more likely, Eastern European, and they are all lovely too, as are all of the students and tourists from all over Europe, Asia, and Africa that I've been running into at the universities. The night before last l went to dinner with an old friend, who told the waiter (as he delivered our entree) that he had failed to bring our starters. The waiter looked -- well, all I can say is, crushed, positively crestfallen at this terrible error -- which he had not made, as my friend had actually forgotten to order them in the first place. On the verge of tears, our waiter began to gather up our perfect aged Scottish beef, when my friend realized that it was his error and apologized. All was well, and the terrible moment passed.

People fall into conversation with you at the drop of a hat, and tell you anything you want to know. And it makes you realize what a very small world we Americans live in back home, and how much we gear our world view entirely to the United States and all of its petty concerns.

Oh, and by the way? They have National Health Care here, and I haven't talked to a single person -- Tory or Labour -- who thinks it isn't a spanking good deal. Perhaps I should check out the estate agent's againon my way to the theater tonight.

Monday, March 08, 2010

It's Women's History Month: Do You Know Where The Women's History Blogs Are?

OK, everyone from the Library of Congress to Coca-Cola is "celebrating" women's history month. Whaddya bet we see a commercial next week where a computer-generated Bella Abzug shares a coke with a computer-generated Betty Friedan to yuck about old times at the 1977 Houston Women's Conference and that nutty lesbian plank that made Phyllis Schlafly and Jimmy Carter just plotz!?

Better yet, let's look at some history blogs that celebrate women's history every day of the year.

Let's start with History of American Women Blog, written by Maggie MacLean, who also writes Civil War Women Blog. The first has a keen sidebar with links to the Wives of the Signers, and the second, wives of the Civil War Generals. Because both lists are alphabetized by first names, we learn that an astonishing 11 wives of generals were named Mary (Emily comes in second, with 7.) Mary was also the most popular name in 1776, but was tied with variations on the name Ann(e).

Next, let's drift to Women of History, "a site providing biographies of some of the fascinating women who have graced the pages of history, in addition to articles pertaining to history, and medieval and modern women." Written by "Melisende," who claims to be Australian and female (I'm not saying she isn't, but who knows?), it's eclectic and fun, moving the reader back and forth between centuries in the blink of an eye. A quick scan of the site shows that Melisende doesn't just stick to stuff medieval, her stated field, but has quite an expansive view of the world. It is just as contemporary as it is historical, but if you can handle that, you'll learn a lot.

Finally, check out the LDS Women's History Blog. It's Mormon women's history from a Mormon point of view, and written by "Erin," a Mom who is determined to dig out the herstory hidden behind all those patriarchs. Drawing on sources not available to most of us who do not have access to arcane books of nineteenth century pioneer lore, Erin's recent post was about poor 13-year old Mary Goble, whose mother died on the way to Salt Lake in 1857. If that were not bad enough, she got frostbite, and Brigham Young had her toes amputated. The point of this story, however, is that the doctor wanted to take the feet too, but Young had prophesied that she would keep her feet. You'll have to read it to learn how it worked out!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Radical Roundup: Rockin' In The UK Edition

This week’s roundup is posted from the London, where your favorite Radical has done six bookshops in 24 hours. The last two were in the company of fellow blogger and Cliopatrician Rachel Leow, of A Historian's Craft, who also led me on a terrific quickie tour of Cambridge University. We stood on a bridge and watched punters on the Cam, and she gave me the inside dope on the punt racket, which has taken a vicious turn lately. On her advice, as we traipsed through the ancient enclosures, I did not step on the grass. This practice is forbidden to all but fellows of the colleges (I have a friend who was reprimanded for walking on the grass the day prior to taking up his fellowship.) You get a real feel for England’s highly advanced visual practices for staking out hierarchy as you walk the long way around these inviting emerald squares of weedless turf. I imagined, for example, a single member of the Cambridge faculty lunging across the green, robe flapping behind and fluffy white hair rising to meet the breeze, even as lesser mortals trudge the periphery to get to the same place -- but more slowly.

While many of the colleges are open to the public, the one I wanted to see – Trinity, built by Henry VIII with proceeds reaped from the dissolution of the monasteries -- is not. But this was no barrier to an escort who may have been emboldened by our delicious vegetarian lunch. “Walk briskly and look like you belong,” she advised. “Try not to stare at the cupola as if it is anything out of the ordinary.” We marched through the gates of Trinity College, strode authoritatively past two bowler-hatted porters stationed there to keep the riff-raff out, took a sharp left past the largest stone cupola I have ever pointedly not looked at, swept by a “Private” sign, and pushed through a centuries-old door into our object, the Wren Chapel.

Ahhhhhhh. It was just as beautiful as I had always imagined. The Wren Library was, unfortunately, closed. They are redoing the electrical systems, which is probably a good thing as it was completed in 1695.

Today wasn’t just a blogger meet-up, of course: we had work to do (aren’t bloggers always working? I’m writing this on a train, for crying out loud.) Watch out for issue 22.4 (winter 2010) of the Journal of Women’s History, where a roundtable featuring May Friedman, Jennifer Ho, Ann Little, and Marilee Lindemann will be introduced by your favorite Radical and commented on by Rachel Leow.

In other news:

Lesbian Garden Alert: The Radical News Service just received news of a great new blog, Grow and Resist. It was described to me as being “about gardening, raising a baby, recipes, canning, anti-toxic households, queer politics, keeping sane, you know, radical Pacific Northwest lesbian stuff.” Well, I was hooked, and you will be too: celebrate women’s history month by adding a few well-written, feminist non-academic blogs to your sidebar, and start with this one. There is a particularly awesome post about building a raised bed with cinderblocks, which is a particularly good idea, since we aren't allowed to use pressure treated wood anymore and everything else rots and falls apart.

And Speaking of Flowers, Did You Know… That when Lynn Hunt was doing the research for her first book, she kept all her index cards in a flowered suitcase that she lugged from pillar to post? This and other delightful writing hints can be found in the most recent essay in the AHA Perspectives monthly feature, “Crafting History.” In How Writing Leads to Thinking, Hunt reveals the sordid truth behind most successful books and articles: there is no one way to do it well. Writing feels like chaos most of the time, and that if you keep working on a book or an article you will finish it eventually.

You hear that? Sending your dissertation to its room will accomplish nothing! Nothing! And finally:

"Little Gels, You Are The Creme De La Creme:" Go here to read a call for "Queer Girls in Class: Lesbian Teachers and Students Tell Their Classroom Stories," to be published by Peter Lang. The anthology "will collect personal narratives by lesbian teachers and students who speak about sexual identity and its effects on the teaching and learning process. The mission of this anthology is to provide, through personal stories, an analysis of how sexuality (specifically, how being a queer woman) can influence classroom dynamics in the high school and university setting." Deadline for Submissions: July 1st, 2010.

Monday, March 01, 2010

We're Bewitched -- By Mary Beth Norton! Friday March 5, 8 PM on NBC

Just received at the Radical News Service: "On Friday, March 5, at 8 PM on the new NBC series 'Who Do You Think You Are', Mary Beth Norton, Mary Donlan Alger Professor of History at Cornell University and author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (Knopf, 2002) will tell Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City fame about her Salem witch ancestor."

In addition to being a terrific scholar, an all around good person, and a stalwart of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, Mary Beth is also herself descended from a Salem witch! I think she mentions this in the book, but I definitely remember her telling me this when we were out on one of our biannual antiquing treks in western Massachusetts.

The show was taped over a year ago, and will be taped once again in the Radical house, since by the time it is on, this historian will be on a Really Big Broom, flying to London for one of those devastating research trips we have to take every once in a while.

Be sad for me as you imagine the History Police poking me down the airplane chute with a sharp stick.